When living in our great country, wide open spaces and isolation are par for the course. If you haven’t lived in a remote location, you may not have been picked up by an air ambulance. Yet, for those who live in remote parts of Australia, a trip by helicopter or light plane when you are ill or stranded could be a common occurrence.
There are fantastic people in Australia who fly rescue helicopters and air ambulances. They also know how to bandage broken bones or resuscitate heart attack victims.
Australia has an excellent record of success when performing search and rescue. We rescue and return around 2000 people per year to their families. People who may have otherwise perished on the seas, in the mountains, or in the deserts, according to this 2015 article.
So, let’s have a look at some of the medical and rescue services we have in Australia, state by state:
If you need rescuing, Western Australia is lucky to have the services of two dedicated RAC Rescue Helicopters. The Emergency Rescue Helicopter service provides emergency rescues for many incidents. These include car accidents, cliff rescues, mining, and farming accidents. They transfer critically injured patients from regional centres and participate in search and rescue.
St John Ambulance critical care paramedics support the role of RAC Rescue. They provide trained paramedics. The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) operate the helicopters. The State Government funds them. The RAC has sponsored the rescue helicopter service since it was introduced in 2003.
In May this year, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan made an announcement. He said the Government would invest $26.7 million to upgrade the current rescue helicopter service. Media Statements – Rescue Helicopter Service propelled to new heights.
In May this year, the Government unveiled a second helipad at Royal Perth Hospital. RPH treats most trauma patients in WA.
Life Flight Medical operates a fleet of four aircraft for private patient transport 24/7. They have a team of nurses, doctors, and paramedics.
Aside from offering an air ambulance service, they also provide the following services:
- Patient transfer
- Seated commercial airline transfers
- Commercial airline stretchers
- Staff hire
- Organ Transfer
- and many other services
Medical Air is also based in Western Australia. It is a privately owned and operated, dedicated jet Air Ambulance company.
They have a fleet of 6 Learjet 35As. These aircraft are the largest fleet of aeromedical jets in Australia. The company will transport you wherever you need to go if you are injured or fall ill overseas and need to be transported back to Australia.
The South Australian State Rescue Helicopter Service (“MAC Rescue Helicopter Service”) is a multi-helicopter service. Four emergency services agencies use it. It supports the police, bushfire services, and emergency medical retrieval services. Assistance is available to all South Australian communities.
The Motor Accident Commission sponsors the rescue service. Like the RAC Rescue Service in WA, many agencies such as police, ambulance and fire departments use helicopters.
The Maritime Safety Authority and Justice Business Services also utilise the service.
Ambulance Victoria services Victoria and has a fleet of five helicopters and four aeroplanes. These aircraft provide a vital link between rural communities and metropolitan health services.
Pel-Air, a subsidiary of Regional Express Holdings Limited (REX), operate the service. Patients usually live outside the metro area. The service ensures rural communities have quick access to high levels of care and transport.
Microflyte operates two Westpac rescue helicopters in association with Lifesaving Victoria. They have CASA permission to operate up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of Australia. The helicopters perform static line rescue operations and drop emergency equipment.
New South Wales
Ambulance New South Wales operates Aeromedical Operations
Aeromedical Operations, Pel-Air, is a specialist multidisciplinary team. They provide coordination, response, treatment, and transport for:
- pre-hospital incidents
- medical retrievals
- long-distance medical carriers
- search and rescue
- significant incidents.
Nine Leonardo AW139 helicopters are based in seven different regions. They carry medical teams to ill or injured patients. They are also used for search and rescue.
Fixed-wing aircraft deliver medical care to critically ill or injured patients. These patients need long-distance medical transport.
In January 2022, Pel-Air began operations with five new Beechcraft King Air 350C planes. Pel-Air is a wholly owned subsidiary of Regional Express Holdings Limited (REX) under a 10-year contract. This contract replaced Ambulance NSW’s 19-year partnership with Royal Flying Doctor Service. The planes are “hospitals in the air”. Experienced medical staff and pilots operate them.
Private patient transport is available through Airmed. They have nine aircraft to deliver you from bed to bed in NSW and Australia-wide. The company will also transport you via road. They are known as industry leaders in transporting infectious patients, Covid19.
Like Western Australia, Queensland certainly has some country to cover! Queensland Government Air (QGAir) operates eleven aircraft. This includes five rotary wings and six fixed-wing planes. They operate from Brisbane airport, Archerfield, Townsville, Cairns, Mt Isa, and Horn Island. The service has both transport and incident response capabilities.
RACQ Rescue operates two Bell 412 Helicopters from Mackay. RACQ CQ Rescue is part of the Queensland Health Aeromedical Retrieval Network. It is tasked by Retrieval Services Queensland, based in Brisbane. The rescue helicopter can only be accessed through the 000 networks. This is under the direction of Queensland Police or the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).
RACQ CQ Rescue in Central and North Queensland will provide:
- Inter-facility transfers (hospital to hospital)
- Helicopters to the site of injury or illness. This includes beaches, roadsides, workplaces or properties.
- Search and rescue
The Northern Territory has the services of RFDS and Care flight NT. The organisations operate critical care retrieval services for the Top End community.
This is a 24-hour aerial retrieval service. If you are seriously ill or injured, you will be lifted by aeroplane or helicopter. The flight services collect you from isolated communities and smaller hospitals. They can transport patients to Royal Darwin Hospital.
Specialist emergency physicians work with patients at Royal Darwin Hospital. They coordinate, prioritise and treat patients.
Care Flight also provides 24-hour on-call search and rescue services. They have an agreement with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. AMSA handles emergency beacon activation in the Australian region of international rescue responsibility. This includes land and sea. You can view our vast search and rescue area: https://www.amsa.gov.au/safety-navigation/search-and-rescue/australias-search-and-rescue-region
Care Flight locate and rescue sailors, fishermen swept from rocks and ill or injured crew from passing ships. They also search for missing and crashed light aircraft or lost bushwalkers.
Care Flight has night vision goggle capabilities. They sometimes carry out night rescues in helicopters or aeroplanes.
Tasmania has some of the most rugged and inaccessible country in Australia. Tasmania Air Rescue Trust supports the Westpac Helicopter Air Rescue Service.
- Searching for missing bushwalkers, boats and planes
- Airlifting injured bushwalkers and people living in remote areas, even offshore
- ‘Medivac’ (medical evacuation) of people injured in road accidents and remote areas.
- Diving or other water-rescue-related accidents.
The Tasmanian Police also make use of the rescue helicopter to fight crime.
What other services do we have in Australia?
The Australian Defence Force plays a part in rescue in Australia and internationally. They are active in times of national disasters, such as recent floods in NSW and Queensland.
Babcock Australia is one of Australia’s largest providers of Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS). Babcock operates, crews and maintains a fleet of seven Leonardo AW139 and seven Bell 412 helicopters. They have eight bases located across Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. They work with:
- Ambulance Victoria,
- Queensland Health,
- RACQ Central
- Queensland Rescue Helicopter Service (CQ Rescue),
- RACQ Capricorn Rescue Helicopter Service (CapRescue)
- South Australian Ambulance Service.
If you have grown up in Australia, the Royal Flying Doctor Service or RFDS is the organisation that comes to mind immediately. This fantastic organisation operates throughout regional Australia. They service some of our most remote areas. According to their website: https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/
“The Royal Flying Doctor Service is one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world, providing extensive primary health care and 24-hour emergency service to people that live, work and travel across the 7.69 million square kilometres of Australia.”
Australian Police – the Australian Police forces in most states have an Airwing or Polair division. The police helicopter and fixed-wing planes are involved in:
- Search and rescue
- Patrol support
- High visibility operations for special events
- Reconnaissance tasks
- Counter-terrorism operations
- Transport of dignitaries and specialised police
- Displays/demonstrations and charity events
- Maintenance and servicing of police aircraft.
How much does it cost when you engage a rescue aircraft?
As you can see, many of these essential air services cross over as rescue helicopters are utilised by multiple agencies in most states and territories.
The private companies charge accordingly for their air ambulance and medivac services. Still, it can also be quite costly to engage the services of a state or territory-operated rescue helicopter if you need rescuing whilst out hiking, anywhere from $2500 – $3300 per hour!
Some states charge a call-out fee and a price per kilometre for an airlift. It depends on the situation and whether the police are involved. But what price for a life? We are fortunate to have such services in Australia.
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